Stephanie Jones is a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Georgia who has been writing about bodies in education for more than a decade.
She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on contemporary issues facing educators and youth including issues of bodies, sexuality, intimate relationships, and consent. Her work promotes K-16 educational spaces that are affirming and empowering for children, youth, young adults, and educators.
In this essay, Dr. Jones talks about a trend that has her concerned: Teens and young adults using the violent metaphor “body count” for a tally of their sexual partners.
By Stephanie Jones
If you’re anything like me, by the time you hear about what teenagers are doing and saying you’re already behind and they’re onto the next thing. But hearing a recent trend that has been around for a while, and is still going strong, made me stop to think about how things could be so wrong.
Body counts are usually reserved for the most violent scenes: wars, mass shootings, natural disasters, massacres, genocides.
So, when teens and young adults use the phrase body count for the number of people they have had sex with, one has to wonder how such a violent metaphor would ever seem appropriate for a consensual sexual relationship.
Or maybe that’s the rub right there: consensual. Surely two people engaging in consensual sex wouldn’t conceive of that relationship as a killing in need of a body bag and simply another tally mark for the body count. Or perhaps the “killing” part is just a recycled age-old hyper-masculine stereotype of heterosexual boys and men not being able to control their animalistic desires and conquering girls and women by any means necessary.
The young people I have talked with all agree that a guy’s high body count makes him look good, “experienced,” popular, like a player. And most of us don’t have to guess what a girl’s body count is too often used for: to shame her, humiliate her, and name her as a slut or hoe.
In the age of #metoo and heightened awareness of sexual violence, molestation, assault, and the way misogyny works, most young people are still denied access to a basic sexuality and relationships education. And while research shows the positive health and wellness outcomes of comprehensive sexuality education programs and the negative outcomes of abstinence-only education programs, most schools in Georgia opt for offering the bare minimum as required by the state.
The Georgia Department of Education expects schools across the state to create or choose an approach to health and sex education that focuses on sexual abstinence until marriage and uses the fear of HIV contraction and pregnancy to reinforce the message of no sex. The state of Georgia, however, continues to have poor outcomes regarding sexually transmitted infections, unplanned teenage pregnancies, and rates of harassment and violence toward students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (see Andrea Swartzendruber’s AJC Get Schooled editorial.)
Individual school districts can elect to use a comprehensive approach to sexuality education, an abstinence-only approach to sexuality education, or include no sex education at all (according to an article in the Macon Telegraph).
In my work with 18- to 22-year-old college students over the past 12 years, I have heard every kind of sex education story one might imagine. These discussions have taken place in teacher education courses where we examine and explore positive ways of using language about bodies with young children who are genuinely curious about their own bodies and others’ bodies. The students I work with are almost always self-conscious about naming body parts and talking about any kind of intimacy, including conversations around “consent,” which have become much more mainstream in the last decade. Future educators will have a significant influence on the ways children and youth are able to think about, talk about, and engage in healthy relationships.
Therefore, it is imperative that educators have appropriate language and comfort levels to both teach about and respond to consensual and non-consensual ways of being with others. In early childhood, this might include the way children talk about one another’s bodies and play on the playground, play chase, hold hands, touch one another, and even kiss someone. As children get older these discussions about bodies, intimacy, and consent will shift but they can build on a strong foundation of well-informed confidence.
The young adults in my classes have talked about their sex education experiences that range from a brief discussion about menstruation and the requirement that a girl go to the nurse’s office to ask for a “marshmallow” when she needed a tampon to a teacher pressing play on a video about abstinence and sexually transmitted infections and Barbie dolls being used to discuss parts of the woman’s body.
Others talk about presentations like “Tammy the Tape” to demonstrate that when scotch tape is used over and over again it no longer sticks, and it’s “all used up” and no one wants Tammy (or any other girl or woman who has had sexual relationships) any more.
Another presentation is about boys being like “microwaves” who get hot and bothered really fast and girls being like “crockpots,” who need to slow things down. The microwave and crockpot metaphors have been shared with me numerous times.
The many stories like these indicate there are official school curricular experiences that promote the shaming of girls and women, the idea that menstruation is to be hidden, the dehumanization of girls’ and women’s bodies (a plastic Barbie doll and scotch tape), the idea that boys can’t help themselves, and the responsibility of girls to keep boys in check.
These practices might be leading some boys and young men to see girls and women as something to be scored, as bodies to be taken or consumed. If we follow that logic just a little bit, we can see how it becomes possible to see sexual encounters as kills and conquests and not mutually respectful and mutually pleasurable experiences that two people have decided to have together.
You’re the only Body Count that matters to me, Valentine…
Against the odds, there are also young people out there talking to each other about their comfort levels with intimacy, what they’re looking for in a private and public relationship, what they like and don’t like in an emotional and physical relationship, what makes them feel respected and disrespected, and what contraceptives they will use (and who is responsible for them) if they decide to have oral or penetrative sex.
We are cheating our youth and endangering our society when we actively withhold comprehensive education about bodies, intimacy, relationships, and healthy sexuality from them. They will make sense of the silence, taboo, shame, dismissiveness, and of the sexism and misogyny that is rampant in our society on their own and we may not like the outcomes: unplanned teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections are the two negative outcomes we most often hear about, but unhealthy relationships and sexual violence should also be high on our list of concerns.
The body count that results from uneducated youth is impossible to tally, but we can do better. The National Sexuality Education Standards can provide one starting point for a K-12 approach to sexuality and relationships education. There are many other organizations and resources for families and educators seeking to educate and empower youth to be well-informed, knowledgeable, resourceful, and respectful in their relationships with themselves and others.
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